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How working alongside Ethiopian coffee farmers lured actor Hugh Jackman into the coffee market

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On June 5, a doc­u­men­tary film titled “Dukale’s Dream” is set to hit cinema screens. Following Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborra-Lee Furness, it tells the tale of why the Wolverine actor started dabbling in the coffee industry.

Back in 2009, the couple traveled to Ethiopia due to an invitation by World Vision, to see the progress of a community development project. While there, Jackman met coffee farmer Dukale.

According to Jackman, inefficient production methods limit the growth of local coffee farmers. “Coffee buyers will come in and offer well below market values, and [the farmers] can’t afford to go anywhere else,” he said.

He noted that only one thing holding Dukale back was his circumstances. Jackman suggested that Dukale required tree cover to grow his coffee beans, but also needed to harvest his trees for fuel. He was able to produce the highest quality coffee, but he had no access to markets that would offer him a fair price. 

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“I realised that no one could succeed alone,” Jackman said. “Like millions of other men and women in countries all over the world, Dukale was isolated with limited access to the markets and opportunities of the developed world. In simple terms, he could not sell his coffee for a fair price.”

This is not the way things are meant to be, and it is not the way they have to be, Jackman added.

When he first arrived home from his trip to Ethiopia, Jackman spoke at the UN as a World Vision ambassador about the need to work with farmers like Dukale so that they can realise a Fair Trade price for their coffee. At the time, he thought making a connection between Dukale and existing distribution would be relatively simple. 

He discovered, however, that the coffee business – cafes, patrons and distributors – was not set up to benefit the small farmer.

Jackman said: “I couldn’t just watch it. I couldn’t just talk about it. I needed to actually dive in and enter [the marketplace]. I needed to enter in some way in order to connect these dots. And it just became clear that the best way to do that was to start a coffee company.”

So, in 2011, he launched Laughing Man alongside Dukale. The coffee, tea and chocolate company focusses on creating respect for organic coffee farmers, as well as paying fair prices for their beans. In addition to selling only fairly traded coffee and tea on their online website, Laughing Man has opened two coffee shops in the US. 

Of course, he also partnered up with longtime friend Barry Steingard, who was about to hop back into the coffee business with his son. Jackman saw it as an opportunity. He cited that both he and Steingard had been inspired by “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good”, a book detailing how Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner created Newman’s Own and distributed the company’s profits to charity

“I had trouble at first understanding how we would reach our goal,” Jackman admitted.

He noted that he loved coffee, and Dukale grew the best coffee in the world. Paul Newman had set an impressive example of how to harness the power of commercial branding into a philanthropic engine. 

“Though a powerful tool (and one I had used before in philanthropic contexts), branding alone would not prove strong enough to overcome the obstacles Dukale and I faced,” he added. “We were not starting a charity. We were in the coffee business. I needed to start a business that could partner with farmers like Dukale in order to gain access to markets. Where no infrastructure existed, I had to find a way to create it through distribution and cafes in New York that would introduce Fair Trade coffee by Dukale and others directly to consumers.” 

It seems to have worked though as Laughing Man CEO Steingard claimed the company has seen revenue growth of 500 per cent. He suggested the Jackman, who owns half of the company, gets no money from it. 

Steingard cited Dukale as a muse. The company even named one of its offerings – Dukale’s Dream – after him.

Everybody wants a shot to have a livelihood, create their own destiny, based on putting out the work and getting paid for it, Steingard said.

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